The Grateful Dead remain one of the more misunderstood bands to emerge from America’s 60s counter-cultural revolution. While their peers’ catalogues are routinely re-evaluated and discovered by new generations, in Britain at least they’re seen as more of a tie-dyed caricature of the hippie movement. Immersion in the 38 hours’ worth of material that makes up All The Years Combine confirms a suspicion that the best way to understand the Dead’s appeal is to witness them live. A musically intuitive collective, they gave their audience a truly communal, open-hearted experience.
1974’s The Grateful Dead Movie remains the best filmic entry-point to Dead novices. Envisioned as a farewell to touring prior to a two-year hiatus and filmed over five nights in San Francisco, the film perfectly encapsulates the unique relationship between the band and their fans; their followers’ joyous abandon is wonderfully captured in crowd shots and between-song interviews. It becomes apparent that Dead gigs were as much about personal expression for their fans as they were about the songs.
At the film’s start the band are shaky – as is the camera work and editing. But once the Dead gel on an understated Eyes Of The World, and hit their stride on a rapturously received Sugar Magnolia, the movie flies. Stellar versions of Dark Star, and Sugaree (the latter from Garcia’s underrated solo debut) are tucked away on a bonus disc. For the most part they look like a bunch of Open University lecturers on a fishing trip, yet, retrospectively, this only adds to their charm: having never been concerned with fitting in with the times, the Dead have become timeless (though you’ll want to avert your eyes from Bob Weir’s denim short shorts in View From The Vault II).
The Closing Of Winterland is a celebratory show from New Year’s Eve 1978, peaking with a jam that encompasses stand-out versions of I Need A Miracle, Terrapin Station and Playing In The Band, as Garcia unleashes some of his most inspired playing of the night. Again, there’s a generous amount of bonus features with a documentary on the closing of the San Francisco venue and fun cameos from support acts The Blues Brothers and New Riders Of The Purple Sage.
Dead Ahead sees the group begin unplugged, with Garcia’s increasingly wracked vocals adding pathos to a tender To Lay Me Down. As he sings “Let there be songs to fill the air”, from Ripple, Garcia provides one of the highlights of the entire box as the crowd respond ecstatically. Elsewhere, So Far is a curiosity: a closed-session set interspersed with incredibly dated visuals that, again, have become oddly charming where they may have once been repellent.
The remaining discs contain an embarrassment of riches: straightforward concert films, ranging from the late 80s to early 90s, all worthy of any Dead-head’s time. Audio quality is uniformly excellent (and available in a myriad of surround sound options), while each individual show provides staggering moments of musical alchemy.